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Light Leaks: Quest 2016 with Debbie Millman

Candle with no flame

The Visible Difference of Light and Dark

 

I am steeped in this growing darkness. I cannot resist it.

As a child the glare of tinsel and fat glowing Christmas lights on our tree drew me, but what I most loved was the way that blazing light stood out against the dark of our living room. My own kids used to get up very early to watch dawn happen while the Christmas tree stood in the dark morning. Now, they stay up late, watching it, reading near the tree. (That is- once we put the tree up. We are always the last people at the tree farm on Christmas Eve. We like to put our tree up on the 24th so it can last, you know, until the last day of Christmas, otherwise known as Valentine’s Day.)

What draws me to light is not the light itself, but how it stands against the dark. This may be overstating the obvious and if you have heard all you want to hear this season about light, then scroll on. But if you are game for a discussion of dark, then stay with me.

Last night was the second night of Hanukah. I am married to a Jewish man and in our 23 years together, we have burned many candles, for Advent, Hanukah, Solstice, Christmas, yahrzeit candles and birthday candles, candles when someone we love is in need, candles when we want to make a party and always at dinner, especially in winter. In our family, I am the maker of the holidays. He will roast and trim and gather materials for whatever gift, Solstice spiral or meal we decide to work on. But the actual making, and even the planning, starts with me. So it was quite normal for him to ask about our menorah. But when he said, “Thanks for keeping me Jewish,” I heard his mother chuckle in the ethers, and his Grandmother Fanny elbowing my Grandmother Elsie. I no more keep him Jewish than he keeps me Christian. We do honor our mutual faith heritage and cultivate the practices that make these celebrations meaningful for each other. He is the one who sets off for the tree on Christmas Eve while I am stirring up the gingerbread dough. I went to the basement to find the menorah, the one with Noah’s animals on the ark, each with a candle hole in their head. I picked up more candles at the coop and last night at dinner, we set them to light.

The second night
The second night

 

 

Barbara Mahany writes in her wonderful book, Slowing Time,

“I am waking up to the notion that to usher the season into my house is to awaken the sacred.”
-Barbara Mahany

Candles awaken the sacred. I study a candle flame as I meditate in the early morning dark. The flame dodges the wick, which nods back and forth, tiny dark stem with a touch of orange pollen at its tip. The candle draws my attention and lets me soften my gaze. I become receptively quiet. Candles are part of how I usher in our dark season. They stand against umbered space, like the Christmas tree, ablaze, in immediate proximity to dark. I cannot have the one without the other.

Which is why I spend so much time slathering black gesso on to my journal pages. I have to explore this dark time with the tools my hands crave. I knit with black yarn; I cover my journal pages with dark paints and write with lighter colored pens. This has become my habit and like the candles, it helps me usher in the season. I notice things differently when I write against a black background.

from my dark journal with a door from Catherine Anderson's book framing the center
from my dark journal with a door from Catherine Anderson’s book framing the center

In Tracking Wonder’s Quest 2016, our question this weekend was from Debbie Millman. Her impressive bio is below, but I have long enjoyed her books. They are works of literary and graphic expression and so inspiring to me as I write my book. Her question:

How would you do business as unusual in 2016 if you knew – no matter what you chose – you would not fail?

The work I have been doing for 21 years, which has sourced my current work, is that of mothering. While I did not enter the position as a job, I suppose you could say I interviewed for the role and accepted it when it was offered to me. And this work experience, which continues to this fresh second in which you read these words, has taught me much about the value of success and failure in a job that has few boundaries and no fiscal compensation. For what is failure than the inability to meet your responsibilities whether they be financial, emotional or practically, as in the soccer or immunization schedule, get them to church for choir practice or file their camp forms by this certain date? Failure can take catastrophic proportion in this job. Yes, there are many levels of failure in parenting, and I think we all touch some failure every single day in our quest to be just the perfect kind of parents we can never really be. So, if success was assured me in my business as a mother, knowing what I know about failure and the lessons it has taught me, I would continue parenting in the way I have been doing, constantly tweaking my delivery, listening more closely for cues to patterns that may solve puzzles of personality or passion, always looking to support the development of a human being with as much success in the soup as possible, seasoned with some failure to balance the flavor.

Ultimately, I work in spite of success and expecting some failure. I have been around the sun enough times to be familiar with the taste of both and happy to balance my days with them both in the recipe.

But the other work I do, if you want to call it business as unusual is just as familiar with failure. I have hosted classes that no one attends. The fact that I am working at all, that I have watered the little seedlings of my confidence and exercised my writing skills and visual art skills to the point there I am right now, is success. The only failure I could see is not doing the work at all. Giving up. Stepping away from my book, from this blog, from my classes, events and offerings.

My failures I accept as lessons and I carry on. I learn from failure.

What do I have to learn then, from the repeated request I make of my husband who has, for about 3 months, failed to call the plumber? We have a leaky and getting leakier faucet and this is his department. When we set up housekeeping there were divisions made about certain things like holidays and plumbing, so just as I tend to the candles and the menorahs, he tends, or usually tends, to leaky faucets and leafy gutters. Without tending to it, this becomes a failure. I am not successful in making a request that gets him to call the guy. He fails at tending to a household need. We mutually fail as householders because leaky things leak energy and this is one place we need shoring up.

To me, the more compelling question, applicable to my work-writing, book building, collage, teaching, speaking, producing events- as to our family dilemma about the leaky sink is:

Why wouldn’t you do the work now? Failure or not. Why wouldn’t you pick up your pen, light a small candle and write in the early morning quiet, before the kids are up, before you have to get to work, before life pulls you out in to the world? Why wouldn’t I write this book? Or propose classes at conferences and arts centers?

Feeling ready is one consideration and surely, diving in to a project requires the necessary tools, the wrench, the pen, the gesso. But, Debbie’s question, an assurance of no failure, suggests that moving forward could be inevitable if I take action and so I say, like I have said before, “Why wait?”

Why wait to call the plumber?
Why wait to start doing what you long to do, even in small ways with tiny steps?

I have tolerated the leaky sink because I don’t have the tools to fix it myself. Yes, I can call the guy. That it a possible move for me. I have tolerated years of not doing what I longed to do because of two very real children who did not so much assure my failure, but were just plain too fully demanding. I did not realize I had the tools to work from inside mothering until the day came when I began to invent them. I borrowed the tools from my newfound mentors and started. Which has brought me to where I am today.

So, to bring this long writing to a close, I suggest to you, in this dark season when candles help, and the dark can be a fertile place to dwell in, notice what is leaky around you. How do you approach the coming darkness? Where does light leak in? And where is your time or energy leaking away from you? What small moves can you take, what tools can you pick up to handle those leaks?

In her post about electricity, another household necessity, Vanessa J. Herald writes:

“Nothing’s wrong here. It is just time to slow down and match my insides to respect the slow and short days of approaching winter. To bundle up and take care. To take the time and effort, or call an electrician, to reconnect my inner ground wire. Or, to pound a grounding rod into the damp, still-not-frozen early December soil.

It’s time to slow down. It’s time to reconnect with rhythm. It’s time for silence and peace on the inside. It’s time to get grounded.”
-Vanessa J. Herald

 

the view from Monument
the view from Monument

An assurance of no failure is slim comfort. I work in spite of it. I work because I know my success may not be grand, but it will be mine. And I work because even now, when the days are short and the holidays press panic buttons in so many of us, my tools of writing and working in my journals, of teaching others to express from inside their life experience are tools I have come to count on to see the dark and the light, to watch the dance and to shore up the leaks.

If you would like to “Imagine your life richly” as Jeffrey Davis invites us with Quest 2016, please take a look here.

If you would like to pick up some tools for expressing from within your own life experience, please stay tuned. On the Solstice, I will be announcing my upcoming Powder Keg Sessions Online Writing Workshop where we will make the simple sacred and write together for a month of weekly writing sessions.

And if you, like me, find failure to be less of a threat than not doing the work, then please subscribe to this site. This rising forth of engaged women making sense of their lives through creative practice, however that looks for you, is my dream.

Thank you for reading me here.
xo,

S

 

Before you wander off to find your candles, take a look at some of my Questmates posts.

About dragons and failure, Brenna Layne.

Taking permission to new places, Leslie Watts.

The healing power of poetry, with Tania Pryputniewicz on Ginny Taylor’s Women of Wonder.

and, Surrendering to dark and light, Sally Drew.

 

 

Debbie Millman

Named “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA, Debbie is an author, educator, and brand strategist. As the founder and host of Design Matters, the first and longest running podcast about design, Debbie has interviewed more than 250 design luminaries and cultural commentators, including Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, Barbara Kruger, Seth Godin and more. Debbie is the author of six books, including two collections of interviews that have extended the ethos and editorial vision of Design Matters to the printed page: How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (Allworth Press 2007) and Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (Allworth Press 2011).

 

Which Opportunity?

CBB SBB by BBB
Catherine and SBB at No. Six Depot taken by my son Benjamin

I am sitting in my kitchen, my laptop in my, well, on my lap and my toes wriggled in to the slots in the radiator. A chilly rain falls on my newly raked out garden, like a shower on a balding head, reaching the soil ever so swiftly. No resistant leaves to slow the soaking wet.

I await the chiming of my kitchen timer, ringing every five minutes as a request to shift around another batch of ginger molasses cookies that I am about to drive over the high school theatre where my daughter, the birthday girl, is in tech rehearsals for the Shakespeare & Company Fall Festival. In this version of Henry VI, she plays a man. It is a set of bloody scenes with lots of stage fighting, not something for the fairy loving set. She plays Buckingham and does not fight, nor does she die. But she is turning 18 and so today, I bake.

In the version of today, November 10, that I am living, toes on the radiator, ginger molasses dough under my fingernails and the kitchen smelling like a place you want to hang around in all afternoon, I am celebrating her birthday and in a certain sort of shock, mourning, stunned-towards-agreement. I am in awe on this auspicious day. When I woke this morning, I lolled around for another visit to the dream I was having, then heard her padding along in the hallway and
I broke in to a rousing “Happy Birthday” at dawn’s early light. My first thoughts are of her and her brother, however old they are, my prayers banter with my worry, my meditation placates my projected agenda and I listen, listen, listen for signs of need, concern, and outright joy.

St. Lucia is in a fairy nightgown!
St. Lucia is in a fairy nightgown!
Girl with the cherry earrings
Girl with the cherry earrings

On my cushion the thought came to me that this day is one of particular opportunity for me. But, what confounded me then is the question that has confounded me since I began this motherhood career, that of which opportunity? Isn’t that always the thing? Every time we fly we are coached with what I know to be good advice, “put your own mask on first before assisting others,” but the others quickly expand beyond your progeny, your mate, your pets, your parents, your siblings, the tomatoes, your job, your other boss, your tiny bosses, the school your kids go to, the schools they might want to attend, your faith practice, your friends, the poems that tantalize you when you are seemingly idle, and all the other ways fancy, inspiration and dreams dare you to draw them on to your lap.

There are many factors that decide our time for us. Delivery times for kids, articles, donations to fund-raisers, thank you notes, completed jobs, inquires, appeals, submissions, contributions, invitations-all the ways we do things that adhere to a timely arrival of the expected materials cause us to rouse and make haste. But then there are the other calls, the ones that show up in our dreamy times, in our journals, doodled in the sidebars of the tests you are grading-somewhere over there, out of the reach of your direct discerning attention, in the shady area where yearning and action do a little gig.
Lately, I have been researching how my work hours go when I don’t check email after every little thing I do and parceling out the minutes I spend on social media. I learned this from my friend Katey Schultz who posted an excellent piece here about how we use time online. For nearly a week I have mostly sequestered my email and online time to three segments of an hour a day. I respond to the immediate needs with care. I flag items that I need to mull over. And I delete a ton of email. I spend a bit of time on the social media sites I am active on, then I get to work. This new boundary I have made relieves me of a burden I had completely adjusted to, feeling anxious if I had not checked my email every hour. And really, there is nothing that cannot wait for at least a few hours. People who need to reach me about emergencies will text or call, and so, the online beast becomes something like a domesticated animal that I feed on a schedule. Moo. Arf. Peep. The animal is content.

Sigh.
Every single day we make choices about how we use our time. Do you put limits on your hours with email or on the Internet? I surely appreciate that some of your time is spent here on Laundry Line Divine. Thank you!

Here are some friends I have lingered with this week.

Janet at Modern Loss.
Joanne at Your Digital Blueprint for my #RampantSisterhood
Natalia at IndieGogo-help another artist mom fund her work
My friend Bryan plays Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank at NJ Shakespeare. It is an excellent, moving, affecting production.

Lastly, I will be selling my bespoke journals and Powder Keg Sessions painted prompt cards, along with copies of An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers Creative Spirit Showcase on November 22, 2-15 in Pittsfield, MA. I’d love to meet you there!

Catherine’s day has been sweet. I feel her turning towards womanhood and meeting similar challenges that I met-jarring moments of surprise where gender affects decisions made by adults that you thought would not yield to stereotypes. She has weathered a few bumps this week so differently than I would have at her age and I am proud of her. But where, oh where is the girl who hung cherries on her ears and made puppet shows for hours? I took the opportunity to watch a bit of the play rehearsal after dropping off the cookies this afternoon. She affects a male swagger in knee high boots, a low-slung belt and sword, and I gasp. She is so believable as perhaps, the 8th wonder of the World, this young becoming woman. I miss that little girl; I observe this blossoming beast and I will feed it cookies and tea until I am no longer.

CBB in Shakespeare and Co 2014 by Haley Barbieri
CBB in Shakespeare and Co 2014 by Haley Barbieri

So. Good evening my dear pals.
And much love,

S

What happens when I map motherhood:

You remember Evil Knievel, right?
You remember Evil Knievel, right?

On the days that my children are in transit
in canoes,
on motorcycles,
Zone 3, row 8, seat 3B,
dropping in to canyons, laden with heavy backpacks and little water,
on buses crammed with athletes smelling of the game,
I pace our house.
I trip over disorder,
apply tea and weed the chard,
but in no way can I land,
as if my attention is necessary
to the meshing of gears, the geometry of loft,
to passing lanes and winking blinkers,
as if the flapping wings of my own heart
are necessary and required for this
and every passage.

I am sure of it.
Their safe travels
and the grace of angels.

June 27, 2015
Suzi Banks Baum

 

 

This is how I work, between visual and literary.
This is how we will work in my Mapping Motherhood workshop at the International Women’s Writing Guild starting on July 24, 2015.
You can join us for part or all of the conference by going here.

How about you? What happens when your kids are on the loose? Do you have visions of Evil Knievel?

xo
S

suddenly, it’s summer

the Japanese Tree peony
the Japanese Tree peony

I am not going to write a lot today.
I am waiting for my daughter to turn towards me, like I wait when the moon comes full.
She is in her own time, but I know she is turning.

She arrived last night, later than we expected.
We waited. Standing in the entry way of our house, our yearning for her was a muddy squealing piglet in our arms.
Dripping and moist. Noisy. Impossible to avoid.

Yet, when she walked in the door, I for one, was a tiny bit embarrassed for the mess of
my longing. In my jammies. No bra. Arms aching to hold her.

She is here right now. She’s been out and back. She’s gone for a run.
I have wiped the kitchen counter several times and watered the tomatoes.
Managing moisture.

I reserved today for this.
Tomorrow, I plan to be ship shape and back in the saddle and all tidy and running smoothly.

Or else, I will be, as you might expect, ship wrecked and dragged by my stirrups. Again, the mother heart, ticking madly, looking for your light.

This is the summer of the Permission Slip in year two of the Permission Slip.
I am, as you may read here and here, obsessed with the act of permission.
This morning as I climbed the stairs, my newly returned girl heading off to for
breakfast with not me, I knew I had a choice. I could turn to all the ways I have to distract myself from discomfort. Or I could, as Mark Nepo suggests in The Book of Awakening:

“When feeling the sharpness of being sad or hurt, it helps to take new things in. This pours the water of life on the fire of the heart.”

So I gave myself permission to be spontaneous. I painted. I found these words.

 

 

 

Redactive poem May 26, 2015 Suzi Banks Baum

What are you giving yourself permission for today?
Tomorrow, Monica Devine arrives with a view of what permission looks like for her in Eagle River, Alaska.

Stay tuned to the moon’s trajectory, to the summer of permission, to the voices of creative women, some of whom mother, here on Laundry Line Divine.

 

Nothing is perfect here, but it is real.
All my messy piglet love,

S

 

PS I know I am supposed to be telling you about this and this. I am also heading to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in August for three wonderful offerings and a bit of family vacation in my homeland. More on all that another day. Please share this post with friends, especially those who stand around kitchens, distracted from everything because of the moon, standing there in jammies, unbrushed teeth, grinning in a wrinkled linen dress.

 

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